Storm no one will forget

Thirty years ago, on the night of October 15 and 16, 1987, hurricane-force winds with gusts of up to 135 mph ravaged England, the Channel Islands and northern France.

They claimed 22 lives, and caused more than £12 billion worth of damage (in today’s money). Some 15 million trees were felled across southern Britain. It was the worst storm for almost 300 years — and forecasters had failed to predict its severity.

In this graphic account, Jonathan Mayo has reconstructed, minute by minute, the events of that night through the eyes of people caught up in it, the emergency services who risked their lives to help — and the weathermen whose forecasts provoked ridicule.

Flattened: The shocking scale of destruction at the National Trust’s Emmetts Garden at Ide Hill, Kent

October 15, 1987


In the Bay of Biscay off Spain, a dangerous storm is developing, caused by cold polar air from the north colliding with warm tropical air from the south. The storm starts to move towards Britain.


On BBC1, weatherman Michael Fish begins his forecast: ‘Apparently a lady rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, don’t worry if you’re watching, there isn’t . . .’


A group of schoolchildren from Worthing are on the final day of their geography field trip at Chesil Beach in Dorset. In the past few hours, the waves have got bigger and, as the students take measurements on the beach, they are constantly blown over. To the west, a huge, dark bank of cloud appears.


The night shift at the London Weather Centre in High Holborn starts work. Senior forecaster Ian McCaskill looks at data processed by the Met Office computer a few hours before, showing an active but small low pressure running up the English Channel, producing gales but not much else.

The satellite images reveal only a leaf-shaped cloud tracking up from the Atlantic. No need for alarm.

However, the Met Office is working partially blind: the weather ship Romeo, which was stationed in the Bay of Biscay, has been withdrawn from service because of operating costs, and a strike by French meteorologists means weather reports from northern Europe are not available.


The storm is continuing to move north-east. Ahead of it, there is rainfall across Wales and central and southern England — not uncommon for October. Yet there are telltale signs that something unusual is about to happen.

In Reading, Berkshire, the temperature rises by 8c in less than half an hour. People out on the streets of London notice the wind change 180 degrees in only a matter of minutes.

Redirected calls: Phone boxes trapped under a tree in Brighton

Redirected calls: Phone boxes trapped under a tree in Brighton


The Met Office revises its shipping forecast and warns vessels of winds of storm force 10. But as people go to bed, there have been no alerts on the radio or TV of strong winds inland. They have no idea what is about to happen.


The Channel Islands are first to feel the storm’s full force. On Jersey, Linda Corby and husband Brian are using the winches on their breakdown truck to move trees that are blocking roads. But as soon as one is dragged clear, they hear another tree fall.

Linda is wearing her horse-riding helmet as protection. Suddenly, the wind picks up Linda and sends her flying 20ft across the road and into a tree. She is shaken but OK — the helmet has saved her life.


On THE final weather forecast for the day on BBC1, Bill Giles says: ‘It looks like most of the strong winds will stay away, although it’s still going to be very breezy up through the Channel and on the eastern side of the country.’


In Southsea, Hampshire, PCs Steve Woodward and Dave Brown are driving along the seafront at the start of their shift. Their Volvo patrol car is being hit by dozens of beach pebbles picked up by the wind. A set of traffic lights has been bent over almost horizontal, and shop and car alarms are going off in almost every street.

In Worthing, West Sussex, parked cars are pushed across roads by the wind, and at Shoreham Airport, light aircraft are flipping over. Seagulls are impaled on fences and dashed against walls.

October 16


The storm reaches London. In Hounslow, police inspector Cathy Stuart looks out of her bedroom window and sees a garden shed flying through the air.

In Southsea, Steve and Dave are helping two elderly residents into an ambulance — they have been injured by falling rubble in their care home. The PCs shield them with their bodies from the flying beach pebbles ‘like bullets from a machine-gun’, Steve said later.

Further along the coast in East Sussex, the 200 caravans at Peacehaven Caravan Park are starting to rock in the fierce wind. One by one the chains holding the caravans down, snap. They start to roll.

Most are empty, but inside one are Mahendra Gangwar and his wife. As their caravan tumbles over and over, they are convinced they are going to die. When it finally stops rolling, Mahendra crawls from the wreckage. With a torch, he starts a desperate search for his wife.

Beached: 90mph winds drive the Hengist cross-Channel ferry ashore

Beached: 90mph winds drive the Hengist cross-Channel ferry ashore


Trees are extremely vulnerable. They are in full leaf and standing in soggy ground as there has been plenty of rain in recent weeks.

A train packed with holiday- makers travelling from Victoria Station to Gatwick Airport comes to a screeching halt inside a tunnel. The train has hit a tree that is now wedged under its wheels.

The power goes off and the train is plunged into darkness. The passengers hear the wind roaring eerily past the tunnel entrance.

The police arrive at Peacehaven Caravan Park. They are shocked to see heavy gas canisters and garden furniture flying through the air. Mahendra has finally found his wife — she was thrown clear when their caravan first started to roll. Of the 200 caravans on the site, only one has survived.


The Met Office sends a message to the Ministry of Defence warning the weather is so severe that the Army may be needed to help the public.


Steve and Dave’s dramatic night in Southsea is not over. They are standing outside their police station when a woman screams. The PCs look up and see that a house opposite has a massive hole in its roof. Tiles from the roof crash around them as Steve and Dave sprint towards the house.

Following the sound of frantic calls for help, they run up the stairs and shine a torch into a bedroom. The roof and floor have disappeared — clouds are speeding overhead.

Hanging from the windowsill, dressed in their nightclothes, are a man and a woman who had been looking out of the window when a chimney stack fell through the roof and crashed to the basement.

Meanwhile, a diesel train has arrived to help the passengers stranded on the Gatwick train. It manages to push the train through the tunnel, but then it, too, hits a tree across the tracks.

The guard tells the passengers they have to leave their luggage and walk along the track to nearby Merstham Station, Surrey.

For half a mile they make their way through the storm as trees fall around them.

Crushed Beetle: A Volkswagen takes the full force of a fallen tree

Crushed Beetle: A Volkswagen takes the full force of a fallen tree


In Southsea, Steve and Dave have a plan to rescue the couple hanging from the windowsill. There is a hole under the woman’s feet where a joist once was.

The policemen find a plank among the debris downstairs and push it across the gap and into the hole. By the light of a torch, the terrified woman makes her way across the plank. Her husband then crawls across to safety.

The Gatwick holiday passengers have reached Merstham Station, but it’s too dangerous to wait inside as the windows are being smashed by the wind. They all take shelter under a pedestrian bridge and wait to be rescued.

Six firefighters are answering an emergency call in Highcliffe, Dorset, when a 20-ton oak tree falls on the fire engine’s cab, killing firemen Ernest Gregory and Graham White. Four others in the vehicle escape.


Several windows in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral are smashed and the glass falls 280ft to the marble floor. Racing skiffs on the Serpentine in Hyde Park are being lifted out of the water and left hanging in trees.

In Croydon, 40 miles from the sea, salt is covering windscreens and windows.

London cab driver Ryan Charles is driving through the West End. He’s been working non-stop since 7pm the previous evening.

As he drives past the Cambridge Theatre, a scaffolding pole from the building falls into the road, just missing him. Shaken, Ryan returns home to his wife and children.

As trees fall onto power lines across the South East, alarms start sounding in the Central Electricity Generating Board’s control room in South London.

The National Grid is overheating. Engineers make the difficult decision to deliberately cut off the electricity to save substations. Gradually London and much of the South East is plunged into darkness.

Six miles off the coast of Eastbourne, the instruments on the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse are measuring winds of 110mph. The gusts are stronger than that (115mph was the highest recorded), but this is the furthest the instruments go.


The Rev Harry Forder is lying in bed with his wife at their home in Merrow, Surrey. The sound of the wind reminds him of the wartime noise of German bombers.

Suddenly, the attic collapses on top of them. His wife is trapped under a beam and Harry falls through a hole all the way to the ground floor, landing right next to the telephone. He dials 999.

The howling gale wakes amateur weather forecaster John Banks in Clavering, north Essex. To the south he can see blue flashing in the sky that he assumes is lightning. It is in fact the large electrical substation at Pelham shorting out.

In nearby Quendon Wood, an elderly tramp named Dick Barrett crawls out of his tent to discover he’s had a narrow escape — two trees have fallen either side of him.


Brian Robbins and his wife are in the kitchen of their London house. They can hear the sound of roof tiles smashing outside. The kitchen is lit by candles. Their three year-old son, Tom, appears at the door. ‘Whose birthday is it?’ he asks.

In the London Weather Centre, Ian McCaskill listens to the wind noise outside the building. He’s never heard anything like it. ‘We didn’t go outside to check it,’ he said later, ‘the idea of a 19th-century Welsh slate flying from the roof focused our minds.’

At Folkestone, Kent, the Sealink cross-Channel ferry Hengist breaks from her moorings. Captain Sid Bridgewater gives the order to leave harbour, but the Hengist’s engines fail and she’s plunged into darkness.

The Captain and his 22-man crew are helpless as the ship drifts to sea. The sea wall has punched a 10ft by 8ft hole in her hull just above the waterline.

Paul and Maggie Meredith are concerned that the trees surrounding their house at Brasted Chart in Kent will fall.

Having gone out into the garden with a torch to inspect them, Paul decides to take Maggie and their three children to a part of the garden that has no trees.

As they sit huddled in their duvets, a tall beech topples onto the house — a branch landing on daughter Rebecca’s empty bed.

On BBC1, weatherman Michael Fish begins his forecast: ¿Apparently a lady rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, don¿t worry if you¿re watching, there isn¿t . . .¿

On BBC1, weatherman Michael Fish begins his forecast: ‘Apparently a lady rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, don’t worry if you’re watching, there isn’t . . .’


The phone rings at the home of Don Fentum, manager of Mansfield’s shoe shop in Epsom, Surrey. The police tell him dozens of pairs of ladies’ shoes are being sucked out of his store and flying across Epsom High Street.

There is looting at the Allied Carpets store in Southampton. In Brixton, South London, thieves have cleaned out a Radio Rentals store of all its stock.

A tree crashes through the Butterfly House at Syon Park in Brentford, west London. Thousands of tropical butterflies escape into the storm, but few survive for more than an hour in the wind and cold.

Two rare South African butterflies do make it, by eating rotten fruit from a garden, which makes them fall into a drunken stupor. The tipsy Lepidoptera are recovered later that day.


On a hill at Clayton on the South Downs, sparks are flying through the air, like comets. A windmill is on fire. Its sails are turning faster than ever before, even though the brakes are on. Friction in the machinery is causing the sparks, which are burning through the wooden side of the mill.

Simon Potter, one of the volunteers who has recently restored the windmill, is desperately trying to get to the top of the hill but the wind is so fierce he can only crawl on all fours.

A huge piece of white timber from the mill falls close to him. Simon finally manages to get inside the building, which is full of smoke. The mill had only just reopened after a nine-year restoration — there is no way he is going to let it burn.


Weatherman Michael Fish is heading into work at the London Weather Centre, having spent the past few hours trying to prop up trees and fences in his garden.

Almost the entire South East of England is now without power — from Hampshire, through London to Suffolk.


Essex Fire and Rescue Service crews receive a call from their central control room. The conditions in the county are considered too dangerous and all crews are ordered to return to base.

The ferry Hengist is battered by 90mph winds and slowly pushed towards rocks, but comes to rest on the beach. The rescue of her 22-man crew begins.

After a gust of 99mph is measured, Gatwick Airport is closed. The control tower is swaying.

Winds of 80mph have been recorded continually for three consecutive hours. Many anemometers — used for measuring wind speed — are run by electricity, so as the power begins to fail, vital measurements are lost.

In Farnham, Surrey, the gable end of a bungalow is blown away. The old lady inside is warned by a neighbour that there is no wall on the other side of her wallpaper.

In Harwich, Essex, the ropes holding a floating detention centre — the former Sealink car ferry Earl William — snap, and the ship, with 78 asylum-seekers, drifts across the harbour.

Her small, terrified crew drop her two bow anchors, but the wind is too strong and the Earl William drifts, coming to rest on a sandbank.


On the South Downs, Simon and two friends are desperately trying to put out the fire in the mill. They are ferrying buckets of water up the hill and throwing them on the burning timbers.

They fear that one of the sails will snap off and hit them. Finally, they put the fire out and manage to stop the sails turning.


In the South East, the winds are starting to drop, although in Lincolnshire they have now reached gale force.

As it gets lighter, the full extent of the damage becomes clear. At Sevenoaks cricket ground in Kent, six of the seven oaks that give the town its name lie flattened. The town is swiftly nicknamed Oneoak.

In Canterbury, a seven-year-old leopard named Xiang has escaped from Howletts Wild Animal Park after a tree fell on its cage. Police are warning that Xiang is dangerous.

In Rye, East Sussex, the fences around a field of wild boar have come down. The boar are now wandering free.

Off Harwich, another ferry called St Nicholas with 650 passengers on board finally manages to get into the harbour after nine hours in violent seas.


On BBC1, Nicholas Witchell is reading the breakfast TV news: ‘The advice from the travel services is that you should stay at home, you should not attempt to get to work if such a journey is a lengthy one.’ The BBC is unable to use its regular news studio at Lime Grove, Shepherd’s Bush, because it has no electricity, so he is broadcasting from the children’s television studio at nearby TV Centre, which has power. The children’s paintings that usually decorate the set have been hastily taken down.


The day-shift at the London Weather Centre hasn’t made it into the city, so forecaster Ian McCaskill and his team keep working.

Rescue services clearing the road between Petersfield, Hampshire, and Chichester, West Sussex, make a grim discovery. A motorist is found dead in his car, crushed by a large tree.

Damage in a residential street in the South London suburb of Orpington which felt the force of hurricane force gales as trees lie uprooted over cars

Damage in a residential street in the South London suburb of Orpington which felt the force of hurricane force gales as trees lie uprooted over cars


Today is Amanda Terry’s sixth birthday. Her father, Peter, is driving her to school in Loughton, Essex. He has to constantly stop the car to move fallen branches.

Amanda is desperate to get to school to share her birthday cake with classmates. They pull up at the school gates and see a notice that says the school is closed. Today, about half-a-million children will have the day off.


Computers and telephone exchanges at the London Stock Exchange are out of action, so trading has been suspended for the first time since the devaluation crisis of 1974.

Across the South East, hundreds of farmers are having to milk their herds by hand.

In Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, police officer Mick Drackford is walking home. All seems well until he looks at his garden. His greenhouse is missing.

Mick finds it 200 yards away in the High Street.

On Shanklin, Isle of Wight, policemen are patrolling the beach. Most of the pier is destroyed and whisky bottles and amusement arcade machines full of money are washed ashore.


Gardener Ray Townsend is cycling through Richmond Park, west London, on his way to work at Kew Gardens. He’s in a state of shock as he passes hundreds of fallen trees. When Ray reaches Kew he’s turned away as it’s too dangerous for anyone to enter — too many trees are unstable.

Army helicopters are flying over Kent and Sussex to help identify which power lines are down. The public is being warned not to go near cables which may be live.

At Southend, Essex, brave windsurfers have put to sea to try to ride 70mph winds.


Ray Townsend has finally been allowed into the grounds of Kew Gardens. More than 1,000 trees have been damaged — half lost for ever.

Ray walks around stunned. ‘It’s like your worst nightmare. I can remember seeing trees down I’d known for years . . . like old friends,’ he said later. It’s the worst disaster since the gardens opened in 1759.

A ship called the Flushing Range is adrift off the Spanish coast. She is being taken to Taiwan for scrap, but the tug’s tow rope snapped. On March 6, 1987, under her original name of Herald Of Free Enterprise she capsized off Zeebrugge, killing 193 passengers and crew.

The waves are 22ft high, so the salvage crew think it’s too dangerous to re-connect the tow. The Flushing Range will drift free for three days before resuming her voyage.


At London’s Old Bailey, only one court is functioning, as so many barristers, solicitors and staff can’t get into London. There is good news at the London Stock Exchange — after a three-hour shutdown, the computers and telephone exchanges are operating again.

The Electricity Board puts calls out to repair teams as far away as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to help repair the damage to power lines.

The South Eastern Electricity Board is told the Royal Gurkha Rifles, armed with Kukri fighting knives, are available to help clear the way through fallen trees.

Weatherman Michael Fish talks to reporters and defends his forecast. He claims it was correct: ‘The lady was from Wales, which didn’t get the winds, and it was a deep depression, not a hurricane — so I was right.’


The storm moves into the North Sea. It is officially over. Eighteen people have died, 15 million trees are lost. It is the worst natural catastrophe to hit Britain since the Great Storm of 1703.

The Met Office record book for October 16 has only three words: ‘The Great Storm.’

France, too has suffered — four people have been killed, 650,000 are without power and Brittany has lost 24 per cent of its trees.

Britain’s Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, is chairing an emergency meeting of the Cabinet’s Civil Contingency Unit. He describes the storm as ‘the worst, most widespread night of disaster in the South East of England since 1945’.

Staff at Woolworths in Haslemere, Surrey, have fixed torches under headbands to help them move around the darkened store. While many businesses suffer, Woolworths’ HQ reports today that the chain has sold 50,000 candles and 25,000 brooms.


On the BBC’s One O’Clock News, Michael Buerk interviews a tired, bedraggled Ian McCaskill: ‘Well, Ian, you chaps were a fat lot of good last night . . .’

  • Jonathan Mayo’s book HITLER’S LAST DAY: MINUTE BY MINUTE is published in paperback by Short Books at £8.99.